Welcome to the return of Seren’s short story of the month after a summer break. This September we bring you a new story ‘Like Lizards Ride Water’ by Maggie Harris.
Maggie was born in Guyana and now lives in Wales, performing her work frequently with Cardigan’s Cellar Bards. A poet, prose writer and memoirist, she won the Guyana Prize for Literature for her first collection, Limbolands, 2000, and was Regional Winner of The Commonwealth Short Story Prize, 2014. Her latest collection of poetry is Sixty Years of Loving, (Cane Arrow Press), and short stories, In Margate by Lunchtime, (Cultured Llama Press).
‘Like Lizards Ride Water’ is the story of one man’s flight from his own war-torn country towards the apparent safety of Europe.
Like Lizards Ride Water
There was a moment when the men were assaulting the girls that Isxaaq almost intervened. His fists were clenched and he had almost risen to his feet. It was the old man who stopped him. He had put out his hand and stilled him. Isxaaq felt his wrist being pinned to the ground.
Afterwards, he was angry with himself, and angry with the man who had prevented him from rising; prevented him from defending the honour of the girls, who all night were staggering out from the back of the truck in tears. Isxaaq wanted to believe that if one of his sisters had been amongst them, that someone would have stood up for her. After all they were not prisoners. They were not here by force. They had paid their way. They had each one of them made sacrifices to be here. Isxaaq thought of his father’s pinched face, his mother’s tears; uncles and aunts selling cattle, mortgaging their houses, trading labour, time, and honour to raise the cost of Isxaaq’s journey. ‘Walk good, my son’.
When, in the morning, they had been herded into new trucks, amid dry laugher from men who casually leaned their rifles over their shoulders, Isxaaq had no doubt that anyone who had attempted to stop them would have been shot. As the engines started, bodies bumped against each other, and Isxaaq found himself locking eyes momentarily with the old man. He didn’t know what he was doing here. Almost everyone else was young.
Isxaaq had walked one hundred miles. He had walked through the desert at night, slept in the shade of rocks. Sometimes he thought he saw others walking too, either before him, or behind him, but he could never trust his eyes. ‘Trust no-one’ was the last thing his father had said. When he got to the meeting point, others bled out of the hazy morning, young men and girls, eyeing each other warily.
They sat and waited outside the village with no name. In the distance goats bleated and villagers stumbled out of half-built houses. The morning had brought camels and trucks stirring up clouds of dust. When the truck pulled up and two men jumped out, Isxaaq was surprised to see that they carried guns. Fear rose in his heart then and he wanted to turn back. Was it really so bad, the life he was leaving? Then the faces of his lost friends appeared before him: their battered faces and broken knees, their disappearances. He stood in the shade of the truck as the men walked between them, taking the parcels of money produced from the folds of their clothing. Sacrificial bundles. Bundles born of blood and tears, dust and hope. They shouted hurry up, get in the back! This was not what he had expected, this intimidation. He had expected it would be like riding on a bus. He pushed to the back of his mind the boy who had returned with his mind half-gone, telling tales of deception and robbery, of being abandoned in the desert. He stood wavering between a past and a future that seemed to offer equal despair. Then the face of his mother and the caress of her hand on his face seven nights ago: ‘Be brave my son, Abu crossed safely. So will you.’
He had climbed up into that first truck with the memory of her words, taking comfort from the fact that his cousin had already done this journey, two years ago. Had crossed into Europe; sent money now for his family. Isxaaq held his chin up. He met the eyes of one of the girls, her head wrapped in a scarf decorated with lizards. She glanced away.
They had travelled for days; over unmade roads, which jerked the bones of their bodies, snapped them against each other like sticks. They reached into the small parcels they carried for snacks – biscuits, bread. Shared a diminishing flagon of water. They stopped at night to relieve themselves. First men, then women, by the side of the road. Isxaaq had felt discomfort relieving himself in proximity to women. The women grouped around each other for protection. The laughter of the men in charge unnerved him.
Other times they slowed to a stop; heard voices. Sat stiff with fear. They did not breathe. Isxaaq had no idea where they were but he knew there were checkpoints. He relaxed when he heard laughter. Sometimes he slid the tarpaulin apart. A flash of daylight cut into his eyes. The shapes of men interrupted his blindness. Guns. Forearms. Money. He breathed slowly and let the tarpaulin fall.
The roar of traffic woke him from a distracted sleep. They were on a highway. Isxaaq was ashamed to find his head had drooped onto the shoulders of the old man. The man had looked at him kindly, his eyes saying all that needed to be said. Heat was an unwanted passenger between them; the smell of sweat and body odour composting through underarms and clothing, settling in nostrils, on tongues. Car horns and the roaring of engines accompanied the loud beating of Isxaaq’s heart.
They stopped sometime in the middle of the day. The men banged on the side of the truck, shouting words that Isxaaq did not recognise. The tarpaulin was raised then, and the group looked out onto a crossroads. The countryside was bleached earth; crops had not grown here for a long time. Mountains undulated in the distance. The men shouted again, waving their rifles, and the group scrambled to their feet, their limbs slow to obey. They dropped one by one onto an unmade road.
They waited in the shade of an acacia tree, its canopy filtering the harsh sun. There was no breeze. Nothing but a lizard stirred. Isxaaq didn’t know what they were waiting for. The men had produced a plastic container of water and this they passed lip to lip, not caring that the water was as warm as the sweat on their skin. There was no food.
Out of the rippling wave of heat on the highway a vehicle approached. Two vehicles. Four by fours. They came to stop by the acacia tree. Four men jumped out. They too
held guns. Isxaaq could not stop the fear that rolled over him again and again. He watched the men closely. They stood together, sharing the bundles of money out between them. Isxaaq thought of his sister’s bondage to the merchant in his village. Three years of unpaid labour, so that he, Isxaaq, could be where he was right now. What was to stop these men turning their guns on each and every one of them, and disposing of their bodies in this scant countryside? The image of the mad boy, the one who had returned, came into his mind. He tried to quell his panic through reason. Why would they want to stop this lucrative trade? Word would soon get out. He preferred to think of Abu, the money he sent.
The men were clapping each other on their shoulders now. The first group looked back and gave a wave, a mock salute. They climbed into the truck and headed back the way they had come.
The new men approached them, counting them, and running their eyes over the women. One of them spoke, a mix of English, Italian and dialect.
‘I trust you have been well treated,’ he said. ‘We have a long journey ahead, some four days before we reach the sea. Here, we have food, eat and relax. We leave when it is dark.’
But they didn’t leave when it was dark. When it was dark, they told them that the money they paid was not enough for this dangerous journey. They said they themselves would be in trouble if they were caught. They said that others were more ruthless and would hold them whilst they sent messages to their family for more money. But, not them, they did not have time to spare. That’s when they had looked at the women. They told them they were fortunate that being women, they were able to get everyone out of this predicament.
The women had begun to scream and shout, rising to their feet and gathering more closely to each other. That is when one of the men raised his gun and shot it into the acacia tree. A branch splintered and hung, its shadow bleeding on the earth.
The man’s quiet voice warned them that no-one was going to be harmed. This was just a business arrangement.
Isxaaq and the men were told to sit beneath the tree and relax. The women sat apart from them, their heads in their palms, their cries rising like the remembered cries of birds. But there were no birds here, only the staggered passage of moonlight through the leaves. Isxaaq took himself back home in his mind, whilst the women were taken one by one into the back of the trucks.
It was dawn before they left. Split between the new vehicles, again under cover. The road rolled away beneath the wheels, beneath their bodies once again in enforced intimacy, the aroma of skin and fear, and now shame. They did not speak.
The smell of the sea came to them at night, long before they arrived. It was cooler, sending a breeze to greet them, rinse them, cleanse them. The cries of seabirds too, entered the world they shared beneath the tarpaulin, like messengers. But when they clambered down, they didn’t see the port they had imagined, bristling with ships. Isxaaq did not know what he had imagined. But what he saw was the mouth of a muddy river and some sort of craft that did not resemble anything like a ship. What he also saw was a moving body that reminded him of termites. As he approached he saw that it was people. He and the other men turned and raised their voices to those who had brought them here. All their voices rose as if in unison, their fists too. But the men turned the trucks around and drove away.
Isxaaq tried to stay as close to the edge of the craft as possible. He refused to be pressed towards the centre. One of the girls who had travelled with him was close by. He recognised the headscarf she wore. He wished she had sat somewhere else. There was barely enough room for anyone to sit side by side.
He could not forget he had not tried to save her.
As they moved out to sea, he began to dream of the life he would live. He knew there would be difficulties. They were heading for the Italian coast. He did not know what would become of them there. He did not want to live there. His cousin Abu had made it to England. That’s where he wanted to go. He tried to relax and imagine a life there. He was good with motorbikes. Maybe he could learn to be a mechanic. He imagined his meeting with Abu. He had memorised his mobile number. That was the first thing he would say, when they questioned him. ‘I have a cousin, Abu, in London, here is his telephone number.’ He knew Abu would back him up; tell the stories of kidnap and torture.
He must have been smiling to himself, as the girl said: ‘Are you happy we are almost there?’
He turned to look at her, his shame returning. She had such large eyes. Beautiful and brown. They did not rebuke him. Next to her, a woman was attempting to hold on to her baby who wanted to crawl, who lifted his arms and stretched his body out in rigid protest. All around him were women and children, young men. He wondered what happened to the old man who had almost certainly saved his life. What was he doing, making this journey anyway? Did he not have children to look after him? Isxaaq looked at the baby and smiled. He would like to have a child like that someday. When he had reached London, become a mechanic, had somewhere nice to live. Someone started to sing a song. It was not one he knew. But it had a lulling quality that led him again to think of his mother and his childhood, just yesterday, close to her knees as she baked injera on the open stove.
He never knew if the wind had turned, or if the engine for some reason had stopped. He never knew if water had rushed in all of a sudden or whether the weight of them all had started the procedure which informed his brain that the sea suddenly appeared to be leaning dangerously above them. The whole crowd of passengers whom he had only just been looking at, the mothers and babies, young men with their hopeful grins and leather jackets that gave them some assurance, the crawling, fretful baby, his exasperated mother – they all of a sudden changed direction, some sailing right over his head. All of a sudden bodies were plummeting into each other with force, knees and elbows and foreheads cracking together with the finality of bone, clothing becoming heavy with water, flesh an upturned cart of market produce in a sudden up-pour of rain.
Isxaaq was lifted away in a large wave of water. He felt himself risen up and then dropped down in turn. Water filled his ears and eyes, his mouth. He tried to beat at the water with his hands.
He did not know how to swim; there were no rivers back home. But his fingers were strong and found something to hang onto. Some fragment of wood and iron wrenched from the craft. But more and more fingers were rising up from the water like fish: Isxaaq fought to keep his grip as others scrambled for a hold, pushing his hand away, coiling with slippery determination around a loin of timber. The waves slapped against all their faces with insistent anger. All around him cries rose like seabirds circling. A child’s body floated past, held up by a buoyant plastic diaper.
Lizards were dancing on the water. He was becoming delusional. He was watching his mother pound maize, watching a lizard just an inch away from him on the wall. So still. Basking in the sun, raising one leg and then the other. But these were swimming, they were rising up and down on the water. The girl’s head broke the surface; her hand reaching out to join the fists that had already formed there, cupped tight; fighting for space alongside Isxaaq’s. He could feel her legs touch his under the water, frantic. Her large eyes filled her face as she recognised him. He felt her hand slip then, lose her grip on the makeshift raft that was holding its own against the battering waves.
With a certainty that had not been present at any time since he had begun his journey, at any time through all the plans of the past two years, through the farewells, his mother’s tears, the acknowledgement of debts and futures, through these weeks of driving closer to hope, through the tension of that night at the crossroads: a certainty arose that made him grasp her hand and pin it beneath his.
He could feel himself losing the sensation of his fingers, the oiled slipperiness that was greasing his body, greasing all their bodies. His fingers slipping. Oil from the boat. The girl’s scarf came in his vision again, like a flag, almost jolly as it surfed the surges of water, lifting a little with the wind. Isxaaq let go his right hand and grabbed it, with some effort wrapping it round and round the wrist of the girl on to the makeshift raft, bracing his body, using his teeth to knot it securely. His heart was lightening, the fear that had accompanied him disappearing. He managed to say to her, ‘Hold on’, watched the ‘o’ of her mouth mirror the roundness of her eyes before he slipped away, her gaze holding his, absolving him, lifting the terror away from him, lighting his journey downwards.
‘I wrote this story last year, moved by the drownings that began to occur in the Mediterranean. The numbers overwhelmed me, and I wanted to focus on an individual journey, and explore what it might be like for someone to move from hope for a better life to get caught up in such a terrible experience. I did some research on the migrants, where they came from, and why, and was appalled to find out how big a scale the exodus was approaching, and how trafficking had suddenly, it seemed, become big business, aided by politics, extremism and corruption.
Since I wrote this story, the problems as we know have grown much much worse, nevertheless I believe that empathy with the individual is something we must never lose sight of.’